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Mechwarrior Online: the good, the bad and the ugly

Mechwarrior Online

Over two months ago, I mentioned that I was in the closed beta for Mechwarrior Online. Since then, my love affair with the game has fluctuated rather wildly, and now that they’ve lifted the NDA, I can talk about it.

My apologies that none of my screenshots show the game from the perspective of an experienced character; they’ve wiped the game repeatedly during closed beta, and I haven’t played since the last wipe, so I’m back to 0 XP, no unlocked abilities and no money.

What is it?

Mechwarrior Online is a free to play FPS from Piranha Games set in the Battletech universe. You take on the job of battlemech pilot, driving around giant mechs — twenty metres tall and bristling with weapons — in an attempt to defend or destroy strategic objectives.

Trouble right here in River City

Battletech has a rich story background as a tabletop miniatures game originally developed by FASA Corporation with the same development and licensing history as Shadowrun1, but at this stage in MWO’s development that background setting is almost entirely invisible, acting merely as a justification for blowing each other up in giant mechs. Piranha Games have promised future play modes involving more of the politics and story of the setting, but so far all we’ve seen is the default team deathmatch mode.

When you start the game you’re limited to one of four Trial Mechs, one from each weight category – at the moment the offerings are a Jenner (Light), a Hunchback (Medium), a Catapult (Heavy) and an Atlas (Assault). Trial Mechs are very limited; you can’t change their equipment in any way, and games played in a trial mech offer less money and XP than a normal mech.

Buying a mech

Of course, you can bypass these limitations (and the need to grind endless matches to save up for a ‘proper’ mech) by dropping some cash on the game; you can buy new mechs with C-Bills (ingame currency) or Mech Credits (bought with RL money), and purchasing one of the high-end Founder’s Packs gives you access to Founder’s Mechs which can be customised like a normal mech — and Founder’s Mechs also earn extra XP and cash compared with a normal mech.

Customisation in the Mech Lab

Once you’ve got a customisable mech, whether a Founder’s Mech or one you purchased, you can use the Mech Lab to change its fit-out to suit your preferences. There’s a wealth of options, all derived from the tabletop game, and unfortunately the game obscures some stats. Kris painstakingly combed through the game’s XML files to produce a very handy MWO reference spreadsheet to help with mech customisation. (Although it’s a patch or two behind at the moment thanks to the siren call of Firefall.)

So that’s where your money goes – that, and rearming, and repairing your mech after you get blown to smithereens. XP, on the other hand, is spent unlocking bonuses for the mech in which you earnt the XP – faster acceleration, faster turning speed, better heat dissipation, and so on. For now those boosts are token values, but they’ll be tweaked to get the balance right.

Unlocking mech bonuses in the Pilot Lab

The good.

There are a couple of great things this game has going for it:

First of all, Piranha are fans themselves of the tabletop game, which means that there are few glaring inaccuracies and they’re trying to replicate the tabletop experience as much as possible. (At least, inasmuch as they can when turning a third-person tactical miniatures game into a first-person shooter.)

Second, their movement engine feels good to me. Assault mechs are ponderous juggernauts with terrifying momentum when they get moving; light mechs are zippy and responsive. Apart from a few glitches, the mechs ‘feel’ like they’re the right weight. It’s not just like driving a human body in a normal FPS.

Thirdly, the pace of the game feels good – again, that’s subjective. But Battletech is fundamentally about tactics – careful positioning, terrain advantage, line of sight, and so on. MWO doesn’t have the fast-and-furious pace of most shooters, and to me that’s a good thing, because it feels more like Battletech than a faster game would.

And most importantly: you’re driving a giant weaponised mech, raining down death upon other giant weaponised mechs. That is, inherently, pretty damn awesome.

The LRM rain of death

The bad.

Unfortunately, I see two huge problems with the game as it is now, and one smaller problem.

The first problem is that there’s only one game mode at the moment: Assault, which is an 8v8 no-respawn team deathmatch where victory comes from eliminating the other team or capturing their “base”, a small unremarkable area of flat terrain. (Matchmaking for this involves balancing by weight class, so a team with seven Jenners and one Atlas should end up facing a team of seven Light mechs and one Assault.) There may be internal playtesting of other game modes, but so far they haven’t been tested in beta at all, and all the beta balancing is using Assault mode as a basis.

The River City assault

This is an issue because — assuming equal player skill — heavier mechs are better for straight-up combat than light mechs, because they can pack more weapons, more ammo and more armour. So there’s no incentive to take light mechs (unless you really like them), and the devs are treating the Light › Medium › Heavy › Assault path as progression, as Bryan Ekman (the Creative Director) says:

There will be some progression – Light to Assault by virtue of how we’ve designed the economy. This is a good thing.

He doesn’t, however, explain how it’s a good thing, and I don’t think it is. In the tabletop game, mech classes have different jobs and different strengths, and light mechs aren’t at such a disadvantage because you can use heavier mechs to support and cover them. As it stands in MWO, you get one mech to pilot per game and if you want to play a light mech, you’d better hope that your teammates are coordinated and interested in backing you up.

To a certain extent that’s an unavoidable problem when you’re turning a squad-based tabletop minis game into a first-person computer game where the player only controls a single mech, but I’d been hoping that other game modes would mitigate the power differential somewhat by giving more value and tactical advantage to the scouting and evasion abilities of lighter mechs. However, the devs treating Assault mechs as inherently ‘the best’ mechs (which is the logical result of Ekman’s ‘progression’ attitude) does not bode well for the playability or balance of other potential game modes. Obviously this is still a case of wait-and-see, but it has shaken my confidence somewhat.

The other – more serious – problem is a mechanics issue. In order to make the game ‘feel’ right as a first-person shooter, the devs reduced the cycle time of mech weapons (and doubled mech armor to make sure people weren’t falling over within seconds of being targeted). However, they didn’t adjust other numbers to compensate for this. To clarify the problem, I should explain some mechanics of the tabletop game:

  • You can fire every weapon once per ten-second turn.
  • Each weapon builds up heat in your mech; as you reach certain heat thresholds you suffer negative effects up to total shutdown and often-fatal ammo explosions.
  • Your mech has heat sinks; there are some built into the engine, and extras in other parts of the mech.
  • Each heat sink dissipates one point of heat per ten-second round (or twice that if they’re submerged; eg. they’re in your mech’s legs and you’re standing waist-deep in water).
  • So, as an example, if you’ve got a stock HBK-4G Hunchback with 13 heat sinks, you can fire off both its Medium Lasers (3 heat each) and its Autocannon 20 (7 heat) indefinitely while stationary without building up any heat. If you fire its final weapon, a Small Laser (1 heat), you’d slowly build up heat every turn until you shed some by not firing all your weapons for a turn or two, or by standing in water for a while.

So that’s how it works in the tabletop game. If you were playing the same Hunchback variant in MWO, and fired both Medium Lasers and your AC20 under the same conditions at every opportunity, you’d shut down or blow up in short order — you’d build up 44 heat over ten seconds (or 53 heat if you fired that Small Laser as well), and you’d still only be able to shed 13 of that. That’s because they’ve reduced the cycle time of all the weapons, meaning you build up heat much faster, but they haven’t increased the heat dissipation of heat sinks to compensate.

Shutdown sequence enabled

This wouldn’t be such a problem if it applied uniformly — it’d just mean everyone has to ease off on the trigger now and then. However, based on the tabletop rules, heat is just one balancing mechanic, and not every weapon generates significant heat. Energy weapons like PPCs and Lasers have high heat to compensate for the fact that you don’t have to pack ammo for them, while ballistic weapons like Autocannons and Gauss Rifles have low heat because you’re limited by ammunition. This means that high-heat weapons are very problematic in MWO — energy weapons are at a serious disadvantage compared with other weapons, especially ballistics — and yet I’ve never seen the devs explain why they haven’t beefed up heat sinks to cope with the faster pace of MWO, and the game has had patch after patch without a single tweak to (or even mention of) this fundamental imbalance.

If you try mentioning this on the forums, however, you get a chorus of yes-men shouting you down with “it’s a beta, it’s not done yet”. Of course it’s a beta; of course I’m not judging it like a finished game. But there’s a difference between “this is buggy and incomplete” and “this is a fundamental design problem that the devs seem to be happy with”. This is the third problem with the game: the community. It’s entirely too full of mindless fans eager to applaud Piranha for everything they do. (Today on the forums I saw a long, detailed post of criticism and suggestions and the first response to it was literally “don’t worry, it’ll all turn out fine”.) I’m all for positivity and giving a game a fair chance to succeed, but this is meant to be a closed beta; this is the time to improve the game and solve the problems. Uncritical backpatting does nobody any favours.

The bottom line.

Right now, I have serious concerns about the long term playability of MWO. I want it to be a success, but some of the balancing decisions seem absolutely mystifying, and without more game modes and more tactical options I fear MWO will devolve into a mindless Assault mech slugfest that’s only satisfying to let off a bit of steam at the end of a long day.

  1. It also spawned a pen-and-paper roleplaying game and a series of very popular video games.

The trap of linearity

Tobold is experiencing Mists of Pandaria largely spoiler-free, and is concerned that MoP is shaping up to be just as linear as Cataclysm.

Blizzard is making most of their money from people like my wife, who was subscribed to WoW all the way through Cataclysm, and was busy leveling alts.

Mists of Pandaria might well turn out to be the worst expansion ever to level alts in. It has the linearity of Cataclysm zones, but where Catalysm had two possible zones to start in, Mists of Pandaria only has one. The Jade Forest might end up being more hated than Hellfire Peninsula, because in Hellfire at least you could skip the quests you didn’t like. All the talk you heard about Blizzard making MoP more casual-friendly is going to come to nothing if those casuals become bored of leveling alts due to linear questing.

An SWTOR mission

This is exactly the problem I encountered with SWTOR. The class quests are unique to your class, but the rest of the zones are incredibly linear, with very little room for deviation. The best you can do is try to get ahead on XP and skip side quests, but you can’t just ignore a zone planet completely even when you’re totally burnt out on it.

This pretty much killed any desire I had to play alts in a serious way in SWTOR, despite my interest in the different classes and their individual stories. It is, I think, probably the single biggest flaw with SWTOR: the replayability is very low1, which means that there’s little motivation to continue subscribing2 after you’ve played both factions to level cap. Even raiders need something to do outside of raid times.

Tangentially, The Secret World has the same problem — however, it’s less of an issue in TSW because you can do everything on one character (except experience the very small amount of faction-specific content), so a) there’s less impetus to play alts, and b) you’ve got a lot more to keep you busy on your main character anyway.

Totally linear quest progression is, I think, a design mistake for a traditional MMO. It may enable the devs to tell more interesting, engrossing and epic stories, but it’s at the expense of replayability, and replayability is where the MMO money is.

  1. Relative to most other MMOs.
  2. For most people.

What’s nifty about Firefall

I’ve been playing the Firefall closed beta with Kris lately, and enjoying it a surprising amount. It’s a F2P MMOFPS with an open world for PvE and battleground-style instanced PvP, set in a future Earth after a spaceship crash that’s rendered the vast majority of the Earth uninhabitable. At the moment the PvE content is noticeably lacking1, but it’s still heaps of fun tooling around blowing the heads off mutant bug monsters. And the game has the single best implementation of jumpjet-style movement I’ve ever played; just running around is gleeful fun.

Me, demonstrating jumpjets

When you start the game you choose a battleframe, which is basically lightweight power armor originally designed for a combat game in the setting’s backstory, now adapted for the war for survival in which humanity finds itself. Your five options are Assault (AoE DPS and mobility), Biotech (DPS limited healing ability), Engineer (DPS and support devices like turrets), Recon (sniper-range precision DPS) and Dreadnaught (survivability and massive single-target DPS). You’re not limited by your starting choice, though — you can buy different frames with in-game currency (although garage slots are limited and opening extra slots costs RL money).

And I’ll digress here for a moment to highlight my single biggest gripe about the game: yet again, there’s a ludicrous and sexist gender disparity in character gear. As an example: male characters in Assault armor get a tank top and cargo pants; female characters in Assault armor get a sports bra and hotpants. Sigh.

The Assault frame, male and female

(And don’t even get me started on the female dance animations. “Pole dancer” is not a good look for a combat veteran.)

Anyway, that non-minor quibble aside: one of the most interesting things about the game is character progression. Once you’ve got your battleframe, you can improve it by spending Experience to unlock new and upgraded equipment via the tech trees. The Tier 1 starting frame is relatively basic and gives a general taste of the frame’s abilities, but if you spend enough XP you can unlock Tier 2 frames – and Tier 3 and beyond are in development now. Generally the two Tier 2 frames focus on different aspects of the frame’s core playstyle – for instance, for Assault frames, the Tigerclaw frame provides superior mobility while the Firecat frame is focused on DPS.

The Assault battleframe progression

Within the tech tree for each frame, you can unlock specific ability modules and upgrades to your existing gear, which you can then fit to your battleframe in whatever configuration you prefer — subject to weight, power and CPU limitations. Most upgrades come in four flavours – the basic “Accord” variant, which is usually unlocked first, and then variants produced by three corporations: Astrek Association, Omnidyne-M and Kisuton. Each corp’s gear has certain specialties – for instance, compared with the standard Accord gear, Omnidyne-M armor plating gives extra health, Astrek armor plating gives health regeneration and Kisuton armor plating reduces incoming damage.

Tier 1 of the Assault battleframe's tech tree

Tier 2 of the Assault battleframe's tech tree

What really piqued my interest, though, was the sudden expansion of the crafting system as soon as I unlocked my Tier 2 frame. Any Tier II upgrades you unlock (except the basic Accord versions) give you the piece of gear to equip on your frame, and they also give you a crafting recipe.

Everyone gets access to crafting, via stations called Molecular Printers, and there are no skill levels involved. They’re introduced early in the PvE game via an introductory mission, and everyone starts with a selection of crafting recipes (or “nanoprints”) for basic items, consumables, and industrial processes like ore refining.

Tier 2 nanoprints allow you to make a crafted version of the basic upgrade you unlocked with XP, with superior stats (but commensurately higher mass, CPU and power requirements). They also introduce interesting complexity to the crafting system, because they introduce the concept of resource quality affecting the finished product.

Resources are in the form of minerals and are acquired by looting them from mobs, blowing up mineral nodes with sonic detonators, or using a temporary mining device called a Thumper. Thumping is a popular PvE activity because it causes waves and waves of mobs to spawn, providing handy home-delivered sources of XP and loot, so it’s fairly easy to rack up thousands of minerals without even trying. Acquiring good-quality materials takes a little more savvy, however.

Resource attributes

As you can see on the left, each resource possesses a number of attributes with numerical ratings: Conductivity, Density, Malleability, Reactivity and Resistance. These attributes are measured on a scale of 1-1000, and if you want to improve a particular attribute you can actually blend two resources — as you can see on the right — to change their attributes.

A Tier 2 nanoprintSo you take a look at a Tier 2 nanoprint, and you can see that the attributes of the resource used to craft it will affect the product’s attributes. This example is the nanoprint for the Kisuton variant of the Assault’s Tier 2 Crater ability (which lifts you up in the air and then blasts you back to the ground at high speed, conveniently AoEing all the mobs you land on). You can see that Reactivity is the most important attribute to improve the Crater module’s damage and radius, whereas Conductivity is the key attribute to reduce the ability’s cooldown. So to make this, I’d look for a resource high in Conductivity and Reactivity.

This will feel very familiar to former Star Wars Galaxies players, where these mechanics were the linchpin of the crafting system. But wait, it’s about to feel even more familiar: resources in Firefall change quality over time.

The overall quality of a resource is referred to by an isotope number next to the resource’s name – the higher the number, the better the resource. These resources shift over time; although each resource has upper and lower limits on each attribute — Bismuth is always going to have high Conductivity and Malleability — the Bismuth you find this week may well have very different stats from the Bismuth you found last week.

This introduces an interesting and complex crafting minigame, where you can spend hours working out the best materials to blend for the attributes you want. And again, former SWG players will remember the buzz of realising this week’s spawn of a given resource has fabulous stats and promptly spending the next week hoovering up as much as you possibly can.

In fact, the only fly in the ointment is that there’s currently no trading system or player economy in Firefall. Devs have said that trading is on the way, but not the highest priority; no word at this stage on any kind of player vendor/auction house system. So for now, anything you make is for you and you alone; you can’t trade or sell your wares (or even your raw resources) to anybody else. Once the trading system comes in however, if crafted items aren’t automatically bound to the crafter, there’s significant potential for Firefall to be almost as appealing to crafting lovers as SWG was.

  1. But the devs have said that they’re focusing on PvE content next.

When copying is a good thing

It’s no secret that plenty of games in the MMO space borrow from each other, and from their community. Each new game is, in many ways, a response to the games that have come before — and, of course, many of us bemoan that fact, or deride new MMOs as WoW Clones, and so on.

And yet it’s not at all uncommon to play a new game, stumble across a feature, and think “oh, ffs, [Game X] did that so much better; this is so clunky!” Or, more often, stumble across the lack of a feature, and be frustrated that “bah, [Game X] managed to get this right three years ago, why isn’t everyone doing it?“.

It’s terribly unfair of us, of course, to criticise games on the one hand for being too similar, and yet to complain on the other when New Game Y is missing the convenience features we’re used to in Old Game X. But apparently it’s human nature, so here are a few off the top of my head:

  • Looting: DCUO gave us one-key AOE looting. RIFT, WoW and SWTOR now have AoE loot; TSW and GW2 have keybound loot. Other MMOs are still catching up, but few games have matched DCUO’s looting convenience. Every time I kill a mob in SWTOR or RIFT I lament again the lack of a loot key – TSW and GW2 have spoilt me.
  • Selling junk: RIFT has a “sell vendor junk” button on every vendor window. Why doesn’t every game do this? (In fact, why even have vendor junk?) GW2 followed suit. SWTOR comes close with your ability to send off a companion to sell your junk for you. WoW solved the problem with addons. Other games missed the boat.
  • Character customisation in game: SWG had a brilliant “image designer” system back in 2004, people. LotRO caught up with the release of Barbers in Book 12, early 2008. WoW matched them with barbershops in Wrath of the Lich King, late 2008. RIFT only brought in stylists a month or so ago, and SWTOR still doesn’t have them. TSW launched without it, but is implementing them shortly; GW2 lacks any kind of in-game character customisation and ArenaNet’s said nothing about it.
  • Crafting: It’s no secret that I have strong opinions about how games implement crafting systems, but however else you feel about it, SWTOR did one thing brilliantly right: crafting from the bank. RIFT wasn’t far behind in implementing that, and players everywhere loved it, yet GW2 launched without it (as did TSW, though that was probably an inevitable effect of its crafting system).
  • Group-finding tools: I’m not sure whether WoW was the first to implement such a feature, but despite criticism it revolutionised gameplay for many many players. There are those who don’t like group finders, but they make it much easier to find groups for the majority of players, and especially in games with low (or spread-out) populations, one could argue that they’re vital. And yet they don’t seem to be a priority for many games at launch, oddly, despite grouping woes being one of the single biggest turn-offs for player retention.
  • Customisable UIs: WoW obviously set the bar here with its addon system (although it wasn’t the first by a long shot), and other games followed suit. Even games without addons allowed players to move and resize stock UI elements for their own comfort. Some devs, on the other hand, seem to be very precious about their beloved UIs, refusing to allow players to customise their layout in any meaningful way (which is a bad move on accessibility grounds, if nothing else). BioWare, thankfully, wised up with SWTOR and implemented a system like LOTRO and RIFT; ArenaNet, on the other hand, are very resistant to letting players customise GW2’s (intrusive and unfriendly) interface. It’s certainly not winning them any friends in my neck of the woods, I can tell you.

I’ve probably got a whole bunch of these wrong, in terms of who first pioneered an innovation, but the key point is not “who did it first” but “why isn’t everybody doing it now?”. I understand that devs want to set their game apart, but eschewing features that make gameplay better, more convenient or more satisfying is really not the way to do that.

So, what have I missed? I’m sure there are plenty of other features that should be industry-standard by now — and aren’t.

The problem of (no) progression

I think GW2 has a serious flaw, and it’s one that I haven’t actually seen commentators discuss much. To wit: there’s not enough progression to keep one feeling satisfied during the levelling process.

The Swamp

It’s pretty well accepted that a feeling of progression is one of the strongest motivators for an MMO player; that satisfying “ding!” as you level up, gain a new ability point, or otherwise improve yourself. Many, many MMO players focus on the levelling experience and lose interest when they hit the level cap – or they roll another alt to do it all again.

When you start playing GW2 those dings come thick and fast. Every half-dozen kills you’re unlocking a new weapon ability, and there are plenty to unlock, from 28 unlockable weapon skills for the mesmer or thief right up to 64 for the elementalist. 1

Of course, that feeling of progression starts to slow down when you’ve unlocked all your weapon skills — but by then you’re well into unlocking slot skills, which open up at levels 5, 10 and 20 for your regular slot skills and level 30 for your elite skill.

By level 30, though, the future’s looking a bit less exciting. You’ve doubtless unlocked all your weapons by now. All your slot skills hotkeys are unlocked, and you’ve probably maxed out two of your five trait areas by now. And now there’s no more progression. No more cool abilities to come. Nothing new about your class – er, sorry, profession. You’ve seen it all; the gameplay you’re experiencing now is going to be the same for the next fifty levels. Call me hard to please, but level 30 seems a bit early to cap out on class mechanics.

Of course, there are still things left to do. There are more trait trees to spend points in. There are more skill points to earn, which you can spend on buying new slot skills. However, it’s my argument that these are fundamentally not very satisfying.

  • Traits are entirely passive modifications to existing abilities, so they do make you more powerful, but they don’t really affect how you play your character.
  • Buying new slot skills is diversification — horizontal progression. Any new slot skill you buy won’t be more powerful than what you already have, and it won’t be an addition to what you can do — it will, at best, be a replacement for one of your existing slot skills, which you might care to use in a different situation. (Provided you have the foresight to swap it in before you get into a fight, of course, otherwise it does you no good at all.)

To be fair, again, that last point isn’t strictly true; each class gets a Tier 2 elite skill which is probably more awesome than the Tier 1 elite skills. It’d want to be, as it costs 30 skill points and requires unlocking two Tier 1 elite skills at 10 points each. Either way, though, it’s just one last ding somewhere in between level 30 and level 80 (depending on how long it takes you to accrue the necessary skill points), and it’s still just a replacement for one of your Tier 1 elite skills — an alternative, not an addition.

The Swamp

And this lack of progression is compounded by the GW2 downlevelling mechanic, where one is always scaled downwards to meet the intended level of an area. Given the importance of dynamic events in GW2’s PvE world design, it’s certainly essential to stop high level players steamrolling lowbie events and making them meaningless for every other participant — however, there are other ways to do that 2 without making the player feel their progression is pointless. As Ashen said in the comments of a recent post at Blessing of Kings, “What’s the point of leveling up and me getting stronger if the game arbitrarily decides to throw that out of the window all the time?” 3

Levelling up still makes you objectively more powerful — new trait points give you passive boosts, and your attributes increase with every level. But subjectively, I don’t feel any more awesome now than I did five levels ago — I still have exactly the same experience fighting a level 25 mob at 30 as I did at 25. That, in my opinion, is a broken system.

Perhaps I’m missing something. Perhaps there’s progression lurking around the corner and it’s just in one of the game systems I haven’t encountered yet. I certainly hope so, because otherwise it’s pretty disappointing to think that, at level 30, I’ve already experienced everything my class has to offer.

  1. 30 for necromancers, 32 for rangers and guardians, and 40 for warriors, if you’re curious. The engineer is an anomaly at a mere 14, so let’s not talk about them because they spoil my argument.
  2. Such as giving higher level players the option to downlevel in lower level zones; if they choose not to downlevel, all mobs are green, they can’t do events, they can’t interact with resource nodes, et cetera. Kris came up with this one over dinner while we were discussing this issue, and it’s just one possible answer to the problem.
  3. This is, for instance, the same reason Blizzard had to make vehicles scale with player gear in raid encounters like Flame Leviathan – otherwise there’s no sensation of progression because the content never gets any easier.

GW2: the real deal

Well, GW2 is live, finally — at least, for everybody who’s prepurchased, which I assume is everybody who cared about the game by now. And now that the beta’s over and we know that things are (generally) working the way they’re supposed to, obviously the way we assess the game is different — no more cutting the game a break because it’s still in beta, or waiting to see if things change before release.

A cave in the Norn lands.

Although I’ve definitely been having fun, and largely in the manner I expected, I have three major points of dissatisfaction today.

Number one: the money.

The “Digital Deluxe” edition of the game feels like a complete ripoff. For an extra twenty bucks over the standard edition, you get:

  • one elite skill that you can’t unlock until level 30 (I’m not sure yet whether it will prove to be actually worth using or not)
  • a non-combat banker NPC, as is common with collectors editions of other games, except the one in GW2 permanently expires after five days
  • one rare piece of gear
  • two one-off consumables, a Tome that boosts your guild influence, and a Chalice that boosts your PvP Glory (which is basically currency points a la WoW’s Honor Points)
  • a non-combat pet

In addition, the two consumables and the non-combat pet are only available to the first character that claims them; alts only get the elite skill and the temporary banker NPC.

Now, I realise that some of this was disclosed on the purchase page (the one-shot nature of the consumables, and the temporary nature of the banker pet), so there’s no sense complaining that one was cheated (although it was hidden in mouseovers). But it definitely feels pretty thin compared with the rewards one gets for other games’ special editions. (By comparison, buying RIFT’s deluxe edition scored you a non-combat pet, a giant backpack and a mount from level 1, for a very small extra cost.)

Number two: the interface.

The UI is frustratingly uncustomisable. Let me move my target frame somewhere useful, please? Let me up the opacity of the chat frame so I can actually read it? That’d be nice. And hey, while you’re at it, how about letting me change chat channel colours? That’d be lovely. And so on; you know the deal. This is the least customisable MMO UI I’ve ever played with, and one of the least pleasant in its vanilla state. That’s not a good combination.

(And hey, while we’re at it: why is there no first-person camera zoom level? I do not WANT the back of my head in all these screenshots, please.)

Number three: together alone.

This is the big one for me; the game is really not conducive to playing with friends.

When your server is crowded (and right now they’re all crowded), more often than not when you enter a new area you get shunted to an overflow zone. If you’re already in a party, you have a better chance (but no guarantee) to be put in the same overflow area — but if not, or if your partymates are in a non-overflow area, you just can’t join them and you’re stuck playing by yourself. That’s frustrating and unfun.

And even when you’re in the same phase, you simply can’t help your friends with the vast majority of what you’re all doing. There are no collaborative abilities (edit: more correctly, I should say that there are limited collaborative abilities, and most ally-helping effects are general rather than directed) — in ANet’s attempts to break the restrictions of the holy trinity, there are no tanks (no way to protect your squishy friends) and no healers (no way to help someone who’s fighting for you). You can’t help your friends’ progress towards finishing a renown heart the way you can help your friends get credit on a more traditional quest. You can’t help your friends get credit towards an event. You can’t put a friend on follow when you need to run for a bio or to answer the door. There isn’t even a /thank emote.

That said, I’ll give them kudos for one thing — on your “personal story” quest chain, other people can join your instance and they can get credit for their own quests, although they don’t get to do the story portion personally. Given how frustrated I’ve been with TSW’s excessive Solo Instance quests lately, at least ANet got that one right.

This is a particularly timely issue given that the blogosphere is currently talking about individualist vs collectivist games, thanks to Stubborn over at Sheep the Diamond. Speaking as somebody who prefers collaborative gameplay – I’m a collectivist at heart, and fortunate enough to have a good group of MMO buddies to play most games with – GW2’s incredibly individualist approach is frustrating and a lot less fun than more ‘traditional’ MMOs.

I’m hoping this changes at higher levels, but at this point in gameplay, it definitely feels like a watered down MMO experience. For a while now commentators have complained about MMOs losing the “massively” aspect to which they lay claim — it kind of feels like GW2’s trying to do away with the “multiplayer” part too.

What makes a good MMO setting?

The recent Shadowrun Online kickstarter prompted a bit of thought on my part, as — unlike to most Shadowrun fans — I’d always felt that Shadowrun would lose a lot in translation to MMO-land. 1

So what does make for a good MMO setting, when you’re talking about existing IPs from books, movies, television and existing non-MMO game franchises? I’m not sure I know, but I do think there are some important factors to consider. (Note that all these apply to themepark MMOs, rather than sandbox games, as they’re a rather different beast.)

Books! Image CC-licensed by A30_Tsitika on Flickr

1. What makes the original IP engaging?

This is something my tabletop gaming GM 2 and I have often thrown around as a criterion when thinking about what makes for a good roleplaying campaign, 3 and I think it applies equally to MMORPGs. Think for a moment about the original IP (especially for books/movies/TV) — is it interesting because of the adventures (or personalities) of the protagonists? Or because the setting itself is interesting? Could you imagine another group of characters having an equally interesting time in that world?

Most original tabletop RPG settings succeed against this criterion (because it’s their job to provide interesting adventure and challenges for any group of characters); TVs and books and movies are more of a mixed bag. As an example: Star Wars and Star Trek both succeed, because the world is full of interesting adventure for anybody. Doctor Who, on the other hand, fails; there aren’t that many Time Lords out there, and for everyone else, life’s going to be pretty mundane. There are some cases where the story is about the protagonists yet there’s a rich backdrop behind them (such as Farscape, Firefly, or Babylon 5), but in general most character-driven stories aren’t likely to be very interesting for the people in the background.

2. Is there a power scale?

Unless you’re talking about entirely sandboxy games where players make their own fun, you need a sliding scale of antagonists. You need mooks for the characters to wade their way through, and you need Big Bads who pose a serious threat to civilisation/the world/your way of life, requiring cooperation to take them down.

This is where horror and fantasy settings shine, of course; whether classic high fantasy like the Lord of the Rings or modern fantasy horror like Buffy, the monsters can always be bigger and badder. By comparison, other genre staples like espionage thrillers or procedural crime stories fall down here — who would characters in an NCIS MMO actually fight? Other ordinary humans? That doesn’t sound compelling.

3. Does the setting suit MMO story needs?

Because of the way quest-driven MMOs are constructed, you need to be able to assume that most characters (not players) are willing to let questgivers tell them what to do, whether because they’re all motivated to be heroes (as in typical quest fantasy) or because they’re the kind of people who will accept orders from their superiors (for instance, military types).

Again, this works in most fantasy settings, because the archetype of the fantasy hero saving the world is fairly strong; even if there are plenty of characters who break the mold, it’s reasonable to assume that protagonists are heroes or champions, and to write quest and story dialogue with those assumptions front and centre. If your setting is full of characters who look askance at disinterested altruism or blindly trusting in The Man, though, that puts a lot of constraints on how characters are motivated to do your quests. This is a criterion that dystopian settings like cyberpunk and espionage tend to fail; in a grim and gritty near-future where people will do whatever they have to to survive (such as Shadowrun or Dark Angel), hoo-rah heroism tends to look somewhat out of place.

4. Does the setting constrain normal MMO mechanics?

“Death” is the obvious problem here. In high-magic fantasy settings a plethora of revival spells make sense; in science-fiction futures, cloning and personality transfers are a reasonable explanation. But in low-magic low-tech settings, you need a plausible way to explain how Joe isn’t dead any more.

LotRO got around this problem cleverly. Healing magic in the canonical setting is slow and subtle, and has no provisions for returning from death (unless you’re Gandalf, and even then he had to get help from Eru himself). So Turbine re-cast traditional health pools as Morale; when you run out of Morale you’re not dead, you’re just too demoralised to continue, and this of course allows for healing and buffing effects from those who improve your morale (such as Minstrels and Captains).

But this dodge won’t work for every setting — it’d be jarring in a pseudo-realistic urban fantasy setting like Buffy, for instance. And there are plenty of much-loved science fiction properties that don’t have handwavium-levels of technology to allow for functional interchangeable clones, such as Babylon 5 or Battlestar Galactica.

Similarly, if the setting comes from an existing tabletop game or video game, does it come attached to game mechanics that don’t translate well to MMO gameplay? WotC’s D20 system is a good example here — it’s the mechanical system behind tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons and the Star Wars Roleplaying Game, and fidelity to it served singleplayer computer games like Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republic very well. But it didn’t translate very well to an MMORPG, where players have different expectations of the gameplay. Dungeons & Dragons Online — a sloggy clickfest — is living proof that mechanics permanently attached to a setting can be a millstone around the neck of an MMO based in that setting.

5. Does the setting still make sense when there are ten thousand protagonists?

This is where Star Wars Galaxies ran into problems when people started unlocking the ability to create Jedi characters — set between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, it was hard to explain away the existence of half a dozen Jedi, let alone a server full of them. SWTOR avoided this issue; in the Old Republic era, there are canonically thousands of Jedi, and seeing a party of Jedi working together (or even a space station full of them) isn’t jarring in the same way it was in SWG.

A setting passes this criterion when you can imagine that any character could do what the protagonist does — Star Trek, for instance, succeeds handily because we know that there are tens of thousands of Starfleet officers out there; there are thousands of witches and wizards in the world of Harry Potter. There aren’t that many Time Lords, though, or Vampire Slayers, or D’ni, or Tarzans. When a setting features a single protagonist whose uniqueness is the linchpin of the story, it’s almost inevitably going to fail as an MMO – what works for the Chosen One becomes nonsensical for the Chosen Ten Thousand.

…Obviously I’m not an MMO dev,4 and MMOs are based on fresh IPs as often as not, but at least these rules help to remind me that “no, that might be a great book but it’d make a terrible setting for an MMO” when I’m having pangs of wishing I could adventure in my favourite fictional worlds.

  1. I do have reasons for this opinion, but they’d be something of a digression. That’s a post for another day.
  2. Who may very well be the best GM in the entire world. Seriously, you other gamers only wish you had a GM this great.
  3. Because we are obsessive nutbags about gaming and RPGs.
  4. More’s the pity.

The doom of factions

So it’s been a busy week for gaming news, with updates pouring out of Gamescom and several games lined up to go head to head on August 28th. One piece of news that attracted surprisingly little commentary in the blogosphere was the announcement that RIFT would be minimising the divide between player factions.

(If this post is slightly less coherent than usual, you can blame the lovely head cold I’ve got; I’ve been sleeping about 18 hours a day, and coughing for most of the rest. Hooray!)

The news broke on RIFT’s forums, where CM James Nicholls posted that

With the death of four of the dragons much has changed in Telara. Old rivalries are questioned as new challenges arise, the greatest the Ascended have ever had to face. Destruction of the Blood Storm is now essential if this world is to ever find peace – Guardians & Defiants must unite if they are to ultimately travel to the planes and defeat them.

The powers that control Meridian and Sanctum still remain at odds and it will take time for those wounds to heal… but as Ascended the choice to work together is now yours to make outside the city walls.

Now, this is being spun as “RIFT is doing away with factions”, but that’s actually not the case. Instead, it’ll work much like, say, The Secret World: you’ll be able to group, trade, chat, use LFG and so on with players from the opposite faction. (Unlike TSW, cross-faction guilds will also be allowed.) However, the NPCs will still have factional allegiances, so I expect that a Defiant wandering into Sanctum is still going to have a miserable time of things. I haven’t yet seen any info on whether zones will be opened up to the opposite faction — will Guardians be able to do the quest chains in Freemarch?

Speaking personally, I absolutely applaud this move on Trion’s part; I just think it doesn’t go far enough.

Factions - Sith Empire, Dragons, Defiants, Horde

Let’s face it, the factional divide is a legacy of WoW’s dominance, and it’s the result of the franchise being based on a 2-faction RTS series. (If Blizzard had made World of Starcraft instead of World of Warcraft, would every MMO now feature three equally-balanced stalemated factions?) It made sense in WoW at the time, given the series’ backstory, but Blizzard’s continual adherence to a static (and arbitrary) political divide was frustrating in the face of global threats like the Old Gods, Arthas and Deathwing. And even the Big Bear Butt’s nine-year-old thinks the renewed emphasis on the Horde-vs-Alliance war is boring.

The problem with a factional divide is that unless the devs are going to put a lot of work in, it’s going to feel extremely stale and limiting after a while, because – contrary to actual politics – nothing ever changes; everyone’s loyalties are fixed forever. It’s even worse in RIFT where the divide is somehow philosophical and racial. You mean to tell me there are no religious Eth? No apostate High Elves? Surely not. There’s no co-operation in the face of existential threats — despite the dangers posed to the entire fabric of the world by the Lich King, Regulos or whoever, the opposing factions would rather spend their time taking potshots at each other and it’s down to the heroic player characters to save the day. (Whether or not you think that’s reflective of RL politics, depending on your level of cynicism, it doesn’t make for fun or heroic stories.) As Green Armadillo puts it over at Player vs Developer, as long as everyone is fighting the same enemies, a two-faction system simply feels like an unnecessary obstacle.

There are some games where the factional divide makes sense and is well-implemented. In SWTOR, for instance, the struggle between the Sith and the “good guys”, the fundamental opposition of Light and Dark, is an intrinsic part of the story’s setting, and they are each other’s ultimate enemies; there’s no third party posing a serious threat to the entire galaxy. In DCUO, all the factional content is nicely opposed — if you’re playing a hero, you’re actively engaged in undoing whatever dastardly deeds the villains have done (and the story instances, in particular, are often nicely mirrored, with one faction’s instance storyline being a reaction to the other’s).

But in general, factional divides don’t add much to a game unless they’re an intrinsic part of the basic setting. Far better, I think, to adopt a system like Guild Wars 2, where factional conflict is World vs World; LotRO, where the opposing faction is a separate PvP-only part of the game; or The Secret World, where you can work with anyone you like regardless of where your loyalties lie.

Shadowrun Online: when being second hurts

As I write this, Shadowrun Online has a little under three days to go before its Kickstarter-based funding drive ends, and it’s not looking good for Cliffhanger Productions. They’re about two thirds of the way to their goal; although the pledges have really ramped up in the last week, it may not be enough to get across the line.

Shadowrun Online backer banner

Shadowrun Online is, of course, based on the popular and long-lived pen-and-paper RPG Shadowrun, which has had a complicated history. First developed by Jordan Weisman at FASA Corporation (and one of FASA’s two big successes, along with Battletech), Shadowrun was licensed to Fantasy Productions when FASA closed its doors. FanPro lost the license to Catalyst Game Labs a few years later, who hold it now. Mind you, the electronic rights (that is, video games) were first spun off along with all the other FASA intellectual properties to FASA Interactive, which was then sold to Microsoft, who then produced the much-hated Shadowrun FPS. In the wake of that, Microsoft closed FASA Interactive and licensed the electronic rights to Smith and Tinker, a new company established by Jordan Weisman. (I feel I should intone “the circle is now complete”, Darth Vader-style, at this point.)

Now, I have a long-standing love affair with Shadowrun; it was the first game I wrote for professionally, back in its Third Edition era, and I’ve been playing it since University. It’s by far my favourite RPG. So seeing the Kickstarter struggling is sad, for me.

Unfortunately, it’s got a few points counting against it.

First of all, a high-profile Kickstarter for a Shadowrun video game exploded across Shadowrun fandom just a few months ago. That was back in April for Shadowrun Returns, a single-player 2D turn-based RPG from Jordan Weisman’s new company, and it did amazingly well. Over 36,000 backers, and they made over four times their funding goal – they asked for $400,000 and got $1.8 million. By comparison, Shadowrun Online has 3,800 backers and has scored (so far) about $330,000 of its $500,000 goal. It’s hard not to suspect that Shadowrun Returns has already leached out a lot of the money and enthusiasm for Shadowrun video games. (Certainly the Shadowrun fans I know are talking about SRO a lot less than they promoted Shadowrun Returns.)

Then there’s the simple fact that MMO gamers – although it feels like we’re everywhere, thanks to WoW’s phenomenal success – are only a fraction of the gaming market. There are a lot of gamers out there who don’t particularly like MMOs, and don’t want to play them. Most MMO players enjoy single-player games as well; the reverse is often not true.

Next there’s the confusion over Shadowrun Online’s subscription model. Originally the Kickstarter launched as a full free-to-play game, which of course necessitates reliance on microtransactions for funding. There was plenty of unhappiness around this, and Cliffhanger’s people put their heads together and came up with an alternative: they’d also offer a “Campaign” model, where you buy the game up-front and then pay nothing for gameplay, Guild Wars style. So as not to invalidate the pre-Campaign model pledges, they’ll be offering different servers for different game types. It’s actually fairly straightforward, and kudos to Cliffhanger for being responsive to their fans, but I suspect the sudden change created unnecessary confusion, which puts people off committing their cash.

And then there’s the setting differences. Shadowrun Online is set in the game’s “present”, in the 2070s; Shadowrun Returns is set in 2050, the setting of the earliest editions of the pen-and-paper game. That’s a huge nostalgia trip right there for long-time fans, and there’s a lot of nostalgia in the Shadowrun fanbase. The current edition of Shadowrun, 4th Edition, shook up the world and changed the playing field when it was released. 1 Although 4th Edition has done very well commercially, and was critically acclaimed, there’s a significant proportion of the fanbase who’d love an opportunity to run around in the 2050s again, and SRO just doesn’t cater to that the way Shadowrun Returns did.

Whether it’s one of these factors, or more likely a mixture of all of them, it looks like this is more of a handicap than SRO can overcome. And that’s a great shame; although I have my doubts about how well Shadowrun would fit a themepark MMO model, I’d love the chance to be proved wrong.

  1. For a sense of the magnitude of these changes, think of the Shattering in WoW’s recent Cataclysm expansion

The beautiful vistas of The Secret World

Let’s have a break from the meaty posts about Free-to-Play games and the state of the MMO industry and spend some time admiring the subtle beauty of The Secret World instead. Here, have some downloadable shinies!

A tower in Shambala
Download “Shambala Tower” wallpaper [1920×1080]

The sweeping views of Shambala
Download “Shambala Vista” wallpaper [1920×1080]

Abandoned ferris wheel
Download “Ferris Wheel” wallpaper [1920×1080]

A quiet street in sleepy Kingsmouth
Download “Kingsmouth” wallpaper [1920×1080]

All images are taken from The Secret World, which is a registered trademark of Funcom Gmbh.